- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Twenty years ago this autumn, the United States announced its intention to withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations agency charged with strengthening cooperation among countries in the areas of learning, communications and scientific collaboration.

I served as deputy secretary of state at the time our government made this decision, and our reasons were compelling: UNESCO’s programs had become politicized and its management practices were corrupt.

The United States did not give up on UNESCO, however; we continued to push for reform and supported individual programs such as the World Heritage Committee.

On Monday, First Lady Laura Bush attended ceremonies marking U.S. re-entry into UNESCO. Her presence marked fulfillment of President Bush’s pledge to the General Assembly in September 2002 that the United States would rejoin the organization as “a symbol of our commitment to human dignity.”

But there are some on Capitol Hill who doubt whether UNESCO has changed or whether it is in America’s interest to rejoin at this time.

Recently, a Senate committee with responsibility for providing the U.S. share of the organization’s budget refused to do so. The committee’s action throws into doubt our country’s commitment to a revitalized UNESCO, and it is at odds with the president’s belief that the organization has been reformed and that the United States should participate fully in its mission.

In the area of communications, for example, UNESCO has come full circle from the 1980s and is promoting press freedom vigorously. The organization has been at the center of efforts to establish independent newspapers and radio and television stations in countries formerly under authoritarian rule or in regions that have suffered conflict.

UNESCO’s accomplishments in this area reflect our own support for freedom of speech, pluralism and cultural diversity.

UNESCO’s “Education for All” program shares many of the same kinds of objectives as the “No Child Left Behind” education initiative in our own country. The core aim of both programs is to make quality educational programs available to all who desire them.

UNESCO this year launched the United Nations Literacy Decade, an ambitious effort to extend literacy to more than 861 million adults and 113 million children who are currently unable to communicate within their own societies.

In another area — cultural preservation — UNESCO is a leader in helping countries to safeguard their irreplaceable heritage. Recently, a UNESCO-led international team visited Iraq to assess ways of assisting international law enforcement agencies to combat illicit trade in Iraqi cultural properties. The organization compiled a database on stolen objects that has already enabled authorities to recover significant holdings of Iraq’s cultural institutions.

On many different levels, then, this is the right time for the United States to rejoin UNESCO. Under the determined and dynamic leadership of the agency’s director general, Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO’s member states have addressed and fully met the objections of the United States, and at the same time, modernized an international forum that is indispensable to advancing America’s vision for a more peaceful and stable world.

As one who strongly favored our withdrawal from UNESCO in 1984, I can now assure the responsible members of Congress it is now very much in our interest to rejoin.

John C. Whitehead served as deputy secretary of state in the Reagan administration and is vice chairman of the United Nations Association-U.S.A. Board.

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